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Who are our first‑year at‑risk humanities students? A reflection on a first‑year survey administered by the Wits faculty of humanities teaching and learning unit in 2015 and 2016

Genevieve Hundermark


Do we really know who our students are as they enter university? This was the question that the Faculty of Humanities at the University of the  Witwatersrand was grappling with. In response, the Humanities’ Teaching and Learning Unit compiled a registration survey for first‑year students to complete that gives an overview of who our incoming students are. The characteristics surveyed include students’ demographic and personal variables, such as the regions they came from, parental and support influences, time demands, financial and technology  considerations, motivation for attending university, reading frequency, and interests. The purpose of the survey was two‑fold: firstly, to understand who our students are in terms of their background; and, secondly, to proactively determine what factors potentially place them at risk academically so that the Teaching and Learning Unit could identify, and direct students to or implement support mechanisms to assist them. This article reflects on the survey that was conducted in 2015 and 2016 and rather than report on the findings of the survey, looks at how the survey and the “survey practice” adopted can be improved. The aim of this article is to reflect on the process used by the Humanities Teaching and Learning Unit to implement and improve a survey to determine different factors that potentially place first‑year students at risk. Reflecting on this process, as opposed to reporting on the results of the survey, is important because it contributes to an action research process where future praxis is informed by reflection on previous action. This process is helpful to identify survey questions and administration that can be improved so as to gain more accurate data, as well as to identify proactive interventions that can be implemented to address risk factors students present and support students to be successful in their studies.

Keywords: at‑risk students; first‑year experience; student success; student support; transition